Dean Alex Wolf leads growing engineering school in era of technological change

Alexander Wolf
Alexander Wolf, Dean of the Baskin School of Engineering

Alexander Wolf became dean of the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz in July 2016. As he begins his second full academic year as dean, we sat down with Dean Wolf to discuss his first year and his plans for the future of the engineering school.

Wolf’s background is in computer science and computer engineering. He has done research in a wide range of areas, most recently focusing on cloud data centers. At UC Santa Cruz, he is leading the engineering school during a period of rapid growth in student enrollments. With nearly 4,500 undergraduate students and 600 graduate students, the Baskin School of Engineering now accounts for more than a quarter of UCSC’s undergraduates and a third of its graduate students.

"That quick ramp up over the past several years has strained our academic and administrative services, but we've been very successful in hiring, and we have 11 new faculty members joining us this year," Wolf said. "Particularly significant is that four of the 11 new faculty are women. Women have historically been woefully underrepresented here at Baskin and in engineering schools across the country, typically around 20 percent, so we're happy to be able to move the needle by hiring above that."

In the following excerpts from our conversation, Wolf shared more thoughts on diversity in engineering, as well as on experiential learning, Silicon Valley, the local technology industry, and more.

Q. What were some of the highlights of your first year as dean of engineering at UC Santa Cruz?

A. I felt it was very important, before embarking on any major initiatives, to put in place a strong staff and faculty leadership team. I also wanted to increase the involvement of faculty in leadership positions in the dean’s office. We have been putting a lot of energy into improving student success and undergraduate advising, and have hired a talented and dynamic new director of undergraduate affairs, Dr. Carmen Robinson, who has been honored for her work with transfer students in particular. We’ve formed two new research centers, one focused on Cyber-Physical Systems and one on Data Science, both very exciting areas of research. And we are building out new labs for robotics and for smart power in the facilities at 2300 Delaware Avenue.

Q. What can we expect in the coming year? Tell us about some of your future plans and goals for the engineering school.

A. We’re continuing to recruit new faculty, and we will be enhancing our graduate education programs to provide more mentoring and instruction of our graduate student teachers to help them be effective TAs and learn that side of the profession. We also want to infuse our undergraduate curriculum with more experiential learning, building on the very successful capstone program that gives students in several departments significant hands-on, project-based experience. Given that engineering is about building things and making things, it’s important that we give our students as much of that experience as we can. My long-term goal is to expand experiential learning both horizontally across departments and vertically throughout the curriculum, so more students get the experience earlier and more fully.

Q. Do you see a need to educate all students, not just engineers, in at least some aspects of engineering?

A. I would say that this is one of the most important intellectual challenges for the campus, and also an opportunity. Engineering as a field is quickly moving from being somewhat isolated, intellectually, to becoming one of the fundamental areas in which a well-informed citizen needs to have knowledge. The students themselves are telling us this: in 2015-16 (the most recent data I have), 36 percent of the students taking engineering courses were majoring outside of engineering. The students see that this is the way the world is going. At the same time, our engineering students also need breadth. So I’m going to be working with my fellow deans to think about how we can insure that our students leave here with a full set of skills. We need people who are conversant in all of the humanities, the arts, the sciences, social sciences, and engineering. If you look at future jobs and the future challenges facing our society, it’s hard to find ones that don’t involve some aspect of all of those.

Q. The need to increase the diversity of STEM fields, and of engineering in particular, is a nationally recognized issue. How is diversity being addressed in the Baskin School of Engineering?

A. We have a vibrant portfolio of student organizations and clubs that are not only about pizza parties, but about professionalism and peer mentoring. They have grown up to fill a need that is both discipline-oriented and focused on the retention and success of the historically underrepresented. Some of these are local chapters of national organizations, and some are homegrown clubs. I believe that the dean’s office can play a vital role in nurturing and helping these groups to collaborate and advance. I am confident we’ll be successful if we work from the students’ own energy to help that along.

We are also a partner in the SEMILLA project, a campus initiative funded by a grant from the Department of Education, which is allowing us to increase support for MEP, the Multicultural Engineering Program. MEP provides a more formal structure in which to develop peer mentoring and essential services to increase retention and success among our underrepresented groups, and it is an extremely important part of our mission. As an engineering school within a major research university that is also an Hispanic-serving institution, we are quite unique. That rare combination presents a wonderful opportunity to create an educational environment that is as inclusive as it is rigorous.

Q. Has its proximity to Silicon Valley helped the engineering school build strong connections with the technology industry?

A. Absolutely. Silicon Valley has been a wellspring of innovation and an ecosystem for exploiting new technologies developed in universities, and we’ve been connecting with that in several ways. Industry sponsors engage deeply with our students through the Corporate Sponsored Senior Projects Program. Our research centers have industry partners that provide funding and engage with our researchers. And we have faculty and students who are engaged in startup activities, both in Silicon Valley and here in Santa Cruz. In the future, we will build out more professional degree programs at the Silicon Valley Campus, situating faculty there so that they can be more intimately engaged with Silicon Valley industry.

The proximity to Silicon Valley has been extremely beneficial, but we’re also encouraged by the development of the local technology industry, and the engineering school has been an important engine for that growth. Our local tech industry is a striking manifestation of the ethos of Santa Cruz, with a focus on social good, sustainability, and life and health. As a school, the partnership with the city of Santa Cruz is emerging as one of our most valuable and exciting assets.